Motown the musical, Fisher Theatre, Detroit (Review)

This is another in a series of guest reviews, this week written by Wendy Wright who has a unique professional vantage point of viewing the tour of the Broadway musical “Motown.”


Let me preface this by saying that I host a radio show called “From Memphis to Motown” Saturday afternoons from 1-4pm on 89.1 WEMU, and thus I’m predisposed to love a show called Motown: The Musical. For me the original “Happy” music came from Motown. When I hear songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and I Heard It through the Grapevine it makes me want to move. And I did love it…for the most part. Spanning 45 years and covering 60 songs, almost all well known classics, Motown: The Musical is a lightning paced confection that is loosely held together by a narrative that traces the lifespan of Motown Records and its founder Berry Gordy.

For those uninitiated, Motown: The Musical is what is called a Broadway jukebox musical which means it’s all about the songs. The book by Berry Gordy, based on his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, chronicles his personal and professional relationships with Motown artists such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson.

As I was leaving the theater, I overheard someone say the story was different than they had heard before. And that might be the problem. The relationships, many of which have been well documented, seem sanitized, or at the very least glossed over. What is left is a slick, well oiled machine, which is probably not far removed from the “music factory” which was Motown.

On this particular afternoon one of the two actors understudying the role of Berry Gordy went on and no one missed a beat. In fact, all of the major roles had two understudies, probably because this may be the hardest working cast in show business. With the exception of the actors playing Gordy, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, all the other performers (with the exception of the young man playing Michael Jackson, et al) are credited as ensemble. Don’t let that fool you. This is a cast of powerhouse performers. Despite playing as many as five roles (with multiple costume changes), each actor gets their moment to shine. Stand outs include Elijah Ahmad Lewis as the adult Stevie Wonder, who garnered a standing ovation mid-show and Krisha Marcano as Florence Ballard. Of the leads, Nicholas Christopher as Smokey Robinson and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye were particularly effective. Allison Semmes as Diana Ross had some nice moments as the aloof star, but struggled with the younger version of the diva. Jamarice Daughtry stepped into the shoes of Gordy as an understudy gracefully. Leon Outlaw, Jr as the young versions of Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson is a child prodigy that should be dissected and studied, he was so spot on.

One thing is for sure, if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Berry Gordy has written a love letter to his former stars. My only real complaint was that I wanted more. Many of the songs were performed in medleys which was a shame, because the bottom line is that everyone who comes to see Motown: The Musical comes for the songs, as well they should. Seeing it in Detroit makes the experience special. The audience, who clearly knows these artists and this music, was with the cast from the very beginning and I can only imagine what it must feel like to receive that kind of love cascading over the stage. If you love Motown music, you owe it to yourself to see this show and what better place than just down the street from the original Hitsville, U.S.A

Motown the Musical continues at the Fisher Theatre through November 16th

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